The all-powerful Lindsey Graham must not be displeased

Rahm Emanuel's excuses for embracing Bush/Cheney policies do not pass the laugh test

Published February 15, 2010 4:16PM (EST)

(updated below - Update II)

Two weeks ago, The New Yorker's Jane Mayer, citing anonymous sources, reported that Rahm Emanuel vehemently opposed Eric Holder's decision to try the accused 9/11 defendants in a civilian court.  Mayer quoted her source explaining that Emanuel was particularly worried about angering GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, who opposes civilian trials:  "Rahm said, 'If we don’t have Graham, we can't close Guantánamo, and it's on Eric!'"  Today, The New York Times' Jodi Kantor and Charlie Savage have Emanuel on the record saying essentially the same thing:

Mr. Emanuel, who favored a military trial for the Sept. 11 detainees, said his disagreement with Mr. Holder is rooted in different perspectives, not personalities. "You can’t close Guantánamo without Senator Graham, and K.S.M. was a link in that deal," he said, referring to Mr. Mohammed.

Can someone please explain why Guantanamo can't be closed if Lindsey Graham gets angry?  I genuinely don't understand that.  By what mechanism can Lindsey Graham prevent the closure of Guantanamo?  I'd really like to hear an explanation how that works.  How can a single Senator in the minority party override or prevent the President's Order to close this DOD facility?  Then there's this:

Mr. Emanuel and others also worried that political fights over national security issues could hamper progress on the administration's fundamental goals, like overhauling health care, and seemed to lack confidence in Mr. Holder as an administration spokesman on the volatile issue of terrorism detainees.

Perhaps Emanuel didn't pay close attention to Obama's presidential campaign, but "national security issues," and particularly reversal of the Bush/Cheney approach to Terrorism, was (along with health care reform) one of the claimed "fundamental goals."   That's what all of the stuff about "shredding the Constitution" and "adhering to our values" was all about; remember that?  So inspiring and deeply moving that was.  When exactly did that get downgraded to some ancillary, "non-fundamental" luxury that had to be renounced in pursuit of What Really Matters?  

Also, this is the same excuse that has been offered by Obama loyalists from the start for everything from continuing radical Bush/Cheney Terrorism policies to protecting Bush crimes from disclosure and accountability: we have to do this otherwise we won't have bipartisan support for our domestic agenda.  Leaving aside the perverse, Mussolini-like willingness to trade away core liberties for material benefits (just as long as the trains run on time), can someone point to all of the crucial GOP support for health care reform and the rest of Obama's domestic agenda that would have been lost had Obama angered the GOP by reversing and/or investigating Bush/Cheney Terrorism policies? 

It was painfully predictable from the start that the GOP would impede Obama's agenda no matter what he did, which is what made all those "post-partisan" proclamations nothing short of sad.  Where is this vital GOP cooperation that would have been lost had Obama fulfilled his campaign pledges to "change" these Terrorism and civil liberties policies?  It's almost as hard to find as the secret weapon Lindsey Graham possesses for single-handedly preventing the closure of Guantanamo if he's angry.  Independently, Rahm Emanuel is the absolute last person who ought to be exerting influence over the Attorney General's decisions regarding where and how to try Terrorist suspects; remember when all Good Democrats agreed that Karl Rove's attempts to influence the DOJ was really bad because prosecutorial decisions are not supposed to be politicized?

The hardest-core Obama loyalists among us become transfixed at the mere utterance of the term "pragmatism":  it's the all-purpose, vapid mantra that can justify anything and everything the White House does.  But for it to work even on that crowd, the excuse ought to at least make basic sense.  Emanuel's arguments for why we must deny civilian trials to Terrorists -- (1) Lindsey Graham will get mad and won't let us close Guantanamo and (2) the GOP will become uncooperative and will stop supporting our domestic agenda -- is about as far from reality as it gets.  That said, I'm quite adverse to the "Blame Rahm" approach to political analysis.  He's doesn't occupy the position of Chief of Staff because he won the lottery or a Bingo game or because his name was randomly chosen out of a hat.  He's in that position because Barack Obama -- knowing full well exactly what Emanuel is -- chose him for that position, and Emanuel's mentality prevails only to the extent that his boss chooses for that to happen. 

If, as the signs increasingly suggest, the decision to grant civilian trials to 9/11 defendants is (like the decision to release torture photos) reversed under political fire, it will be because Barack Obama, and nobody else, chose for that to happen (and on a related note, see this excellent NYT Editorial today excoriating the administration for its ongoing efforts to shield Bush crimes from disclosure and accountability).  If Obama does order a reversal of Holder's decision, let's at least hope the excuse-making improves.

* * * * *

Australia becomes the latest country -- after Britain, Spain, Indonesia, and India -- to show how civilized countries previously victimized by horrific attacks imprison Terrorists:  not by putting them in cages without charges or inventing new, due-process-abridging military tribunals, but rather, by giving them trials in their real court system.  Note, too, that the terrorists in question here were found guilty of plotting to bomb a large sporting event and/or kill the Australian Prime Minister.  But rather than panic and abandon their justice system, the Australians provided the accused with the full panoply of due process and then imposed a harsh sentence.  It's a good thing Lindsey Graham isn't Australian; he would have put his foot down and would never have allowed this to happen.


UPDATE:  Former Bush officials Dana Perino and Bill Burck -- who go to National Review more or less on a daily basis to accuse Obama of Endangering Us All due to those rare instances when he abandons Bush/Cheney Terrorism policies -- today declare victory by lavishly praising the administration for signaling a general reversal on these matters, and specifically that it intends to reverse Holder's decision to try the 9/11 defendants in a civilian court.  Perino and Burck believe All Praise is Due Rahm:

[W]e are happy to report that the White House appears to be taking steps, halting though they may be, to rectify some of its most serious mistakes. . . . It also represents a major victory for Rahm Emanuel, who, it has been widely reported, strongly opposed trying KSM in civilian court, and has also opposed a number of the attorney general’s other moves, such as investigating CIA interrogators for alleged abuses of terrorist detainees after Obama had personally promised that would not happen.

So Rahm gets the seal of approval from these Cheney loyalists, and it's not hard to see why.  By working to keep those policies in place and preventing any investigation of past crimes (both Mayer and the NYT today reported that Rahm vehemently opposed any DOJ prosecutions or even investigations into Bush interrogation abuses), the Cheneyites (and Lindsey Graham) have the best friend they could ever hope for in Obama's Chief of Staff (that's why Cheney feels free to boast about his commission of war crimes with increasing pride).  On a related note, Perino and Burck echo Karl Rove in heaping praise on Washington Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt of The Liberal Media.  That, too, is unsurprising, as Hiatt is essentially the Rahm Emanuel of establishment "Journalism":  vigilantly providing the Centrist cover for everything Bush and Cheney did.


UPDATE II:  In his May civil liberties speech, President Obama announced that his administration would seek a "preventive detention" law authorizing detentions without charges.  In September, the administration announced it had changed its mind, and would instead continue detaining people indefinitely without charges based on the Bush/Cheney theory that Congress implicitly authorized the President to do so when it enacted the 2001 AUMF.  Today, Lindsey Graham announced that the White House was now once again considering supporting an indefinite detention law as a means of securing his approval on terrorism policy.  It's unclear whether this is true, but given the vital position Graham has been given by the Obama White House -- Supreme Chairman of Terrorism Policy -- it would be unwise to dismiss his decree.

By Glenn Greenwald

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